The Old Testament. The Hebrew word so rendered is nepes [v,p,n]. It appears 755 times in the Old Testament. The King James Version uses 42 different English terms to translate it. The two most common renderings are "soul" (428 times) and "life" (117 times). It is the synchronic use of nepes [v,p,n] that determines its meaning rather than the diachronic. Hebrew is inclined to use one and the same word for a variety of functions that are labeled with distinct words in English.
Nepes [v,p,n] in the Old Testament is never the "immortal soul" but simply the life principle or living being. Such is observable in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, where the qualified (living) nepes [v,p,n] refers to animals and is rendered "living creatures." The same Hebrew term is then applied to the creation of humankind in Genesis 2:7, where dust is vitalized by the breath of God and becomes a "living being." Thus, human being shares soul with the animals. It is the breath of God that makes the lifeless dust a "living being" person.
Frequently in the Old Testament nepes [v,p,n] designates the individual ( Lev 17:10 ; 23:30 ). In its plural form it indicates a number of individuals such as Abraham's party ( Gen 12:5 ), the remnant left behind in Judah ( Jer 43:6 ), and the offspring of Leah ( Gen 46:15 ).
Nepes [v,p,n] qualified by "dead" means a dead individual, a corpse ( Num 6:6 ). More significant here is that nepes [v,p,n] can mean the corpse of an individual even without the qualification "dead" ( Num 5:2 ; 6:11 ). Here nepes [v,p,n] is detached from the concept of life and refers to the corpse. Hebrew thought could not conceive of a disembodied nepes [v,p,n].
Frequently nepes [v,p,n] takes the place of a personal or reflexive pronoun ( Psalm 54:4 ; Prov 18:7 ). Admittedly this movement from the nominal to the pronominal is without an exact borderline. The Revised Standard Version reflects the above understanding of nepes [v,p,n] by replacing the King James Version "soul" with such translations as "being, " "one, " "self, " "I/me."
Nepes [v,p,n] is also used to designate parts of the body, primarily to stress their characteristics and functions. It can refer to the throat ( Isa 5:14 ; Hab 2:5 ), noting that it can be parched and dry ( Num 11:6 ; Jeremiah 31:12 Jeremiah 31:25 ), discerning ( Prov 16:23 ), hungry ( Num 21:5 ), and breathing ( Jer 2:24 ). Nepes [v,p,n] also can mean the neck, and the vital function that takes place there, noting that it can be ensnared ( 1 Sam 28:9 ; Psalm 105:18 ), humbled and endangered ( Prov 18:7 ), and bowed to the ground ( Psalm 44:25 ). Even while focusing on a single part of the body, by synecodoche the whole person is represented.
Nepes [v,p,n] is often used to express physical needs such as hunger ( Deut 12:20 ; 1 Sam 2:16 ) and thirst ( Prov 25:25 ). It can be used of excessive desires (gluttony Prov 23:2 ) and of unfulfilled desires (barrenness 1 Sam 1:15 ). Volitional/spiritual yearning is also assigned to nepes [v,p,n], such as the desire for God ( Psalm 42:1-2 ), justice ( Isa 26:8-9 ), evil ( Prov 21:10 ), and political power ( 2 Sam 3:21 ). Emotions are expressed by nepes [v,p,n] so that it feels hate (so used of Yahweh Isa 1:14 ), grief ( Jer 13:17 ), joy and exultation, disquietude ( Psalm 42:5 ), and unhappiness ( 1 Sam 1:15 ).
Clearly, then, in the Old Testament a mortal is a living soul rather than having a soul. Instead of splitting a person into two or three parts, Hebrew thought sees a unified being, but one that is profoundly complex, a psychophysical being.
The New Testament. The counterpart to nepes [v,p,n] in the New Testament is psyche [yuchv] (nepes [v,p,n] is translated as psyche [yuchv] six hundred times in the Septaugint). Compared to nepes [v,p,n] in the Old Testament, psyche [yuchv] appears relatively infrequently in the New Testament. This may be due to the fact that nepes [v,p,n] is used extensively in poetic literature, which is more prevalent in the Old Testament than the New Testament. The Pauline Epistles concentrate more on soma [sw'ma] (body) and pneuma [pneu'ma] (spirit) than psyche [yuchv].
This word has a range of meanings similar to nepes [v,p,n]. It frequently designates life: one can risk his life ( John 13:37 ; Acts 15:26 ; Rom 16:4 ; Php 2:30 ), give his life ( Matt 20:28 ), lay down his life ( John 10:15 John 10:17-18 ), forfeit his life ( Matt 16:26 ), hate his life ( Luke 14:26 ), and have his life demanded of him ( Luke 12:20 ).
Psyche, as its Old Testament counterpart, can indicate the person ( Acts 2:41 ; 27:37 ). It also serves as the reflexive pronoun designating the self ("I'll say to myself" Luke 12:19 ; "as my witness" 2 Cor 1:23 ; "share our lives" 1 Thess 2:8 ).
The adjectival form "soulish" indicates a person governed by the sensuous nature with subjection to appetite and passion. Such a person is "natural/unspiritual" and cannot receive the gifts of God's Spirit because they make no sense to him ( 1 Cor 2:14-15 ). As in the Old Testament, the soul relates humans to the animal world ( 1 Cor 15:42-50 ) while it is the spirit of people that allows a dynamic relationship with God.
There are passages where psyche [yuchv] stands in contrast to the body, and there it seems to refer to an immortal part of man. "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell" ( Matt 10:28 ). While Scripture generally addresses humans as unitary beings, there are such passages that seem to allow divisibility within unity.
Bibliography. W. Dryness, Themes in Old Testament Theology; R. H. Gundry, Somma in Biblical Theology; R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms; N. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament; H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Soul'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".